By Vincent de Gooyert
Here I explore two outcomes of facilitated modelling – cognitive change and consensus forming – and ask: how can achieving those outcomes be improved?
But first, what is facilitated modelling?
Facilitated modelling is an approach where operational researchers act as facilitators to model an issue collaboratively with stakeholders, usually in a workshop. Operational research, also known as operations research, seeks to improve decision-making by developing and applying analytical methods.
Two central aims of facilitated modelling are to achieve cognitive change and to form consensus.
Cognitive change is the idea that participants of facilitated modelling workshops come in with a certain worldview, and that the intervention leads them to learn about the issue and accordingly change their minds. The intention of facilitated modelling is that the participants change their minds in such a manner that, after the workshop, their view on the problem is more similar to those of the other participants than before the workshop. In other words: facilitated modelling helps to form consensus.
What can go wrong in facilitated modelling?
Each participant in a facilitated modelling workshop brings his or her mental model about the issue under consideration. This mental model consists of all the deeply held beliefs that individuals maintain. Engaging in a structured dialogue can lead to instances where opposing mental models are confronted with each other. Cognitive change requires participants to surface and resolve these differences leading to an improved understanding of the issue.
If, however, participants avoid discussing sensitive issues, differences in mental models may remain hidden reducing the cognitive change achieved.
Consensus forming can be interactional or mental. Interactional consensus occurs as part of the workshop discussion process and may be more or less explicit. For example, the chair may claim consensus has been achieved and then move on to another topic. Alternatively, the chair may provide an opportunity to express dissent and make sure that all participants have a chance to articulate their views.
Mental consensus refers to congruence or alignment of beliefs among workshop participants. While interactional consensus is observed by meeting participants, mental consensus is observed by an outsider (eg., a researcher) by aggregating individual measures.
There can be a mismatch between mental consensus and perceived interactional consensus, which is referred to as:
- pluralistic ignorance if the majority agrees but thinks they do not
- false consensus if participants think they agree but in fact they do not.
Our research (de Gooyert et al., 2022) has shown that there is little empirical evidence about the occurrence of cognitive change and consensus formation. Further, in a study gathering such evidence ourselves, we found that although cognitive change and consensus forming were achieved, experienced (perceived interactional) and observed (mental) cognitive change were not related.
Improving facilitated modelling
Central to improving facilitated modelling is to gather more empirical data about the cognitive change and consensus forming outcomes, especially under different workshop conditions. The aim is to determine what makes workshops effective in achieving these outcomes.
Does it help, for example:
- if the facilitated modelling workshops are preceded by a round of interviews where sensitive issues are specifically explored to ensure that they are also included in the workshop?
- if workshops avoid having dual aims of team building and an analytical consideration of the issue of interest? In team building there is a tendency to avoid uncomfortable discussions which stops sensitive issues from being raised.
- if workshop participants are informed about the results of research examining outcomes? Workshop participants may suffer from an illusion of productivity, to explain why participants are convinced they are more productive in a brainstorming group than when working individually and pooling their results. Being informed about what actually happened may make workshop participants more discerning about the workshops they participate in and how they contribute.
What do you think? Do you have other evidence or ideas to contribute? How do these issues play out in the participatory modelling community?
To find out more:
de Gooyert, V., Rouwette, E., van Kranenburg, H., Freeman, E. and van Breen, H. (2022). Cognitive change and consensus forming in facilitated modelling: A comparison of experienced and observed outcomes. European Journal of Operational Research, 299, 2: 589-599. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejor.2021.09.007.
This paper also provides the references for the ideas cited in this i2Insights contribution.
Biography: Vincent de Gooyert PhD is an associate professor at Nijmegen School of Management, Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. His research and teaching revolve around increasing understanding of, as well as intervening in, societal transformations towards sustainability, using and contributing to methods on stakeholder engagement, system dynamics, and socio-technical transitions.